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Commissioner says fees could pay for bigger schools budget

November 24, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Disagreeing with claims that the Washington County Board of Education's money requests are unreasonable, Washington County Commissioner James F. Kercheval said he thinks building fees charged to developers would generate enough money for substantial increases to the school board.

Kercheval said the building fees for schools could add to the school board's construction budget by as much as $10 million to $11 million a year if the commissioners would adjust the county's excise tax.

Last week, Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell called the requests unreasonable, and Commissioner John C. Munson said the county doesn't have the money to fund the proposed increases.

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"You got to look at the whole picture, and some of the comments didn't really take the whole picture into account," Kercheval said in an interview last week.

He said by phone Tuesday that the commissioners are studying whether to turn the excise tax into a flat fee for developers, a move that would raise more money for school construction projects.

The tax is now charged to new construction on a per-square-foot basis.

The state would have to approve such a move.

The amount of the new excise flat tax would be similar to the amount charged to developers under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) fee for schools - $7,355 per unit in areas where schools are at 85 percent capacity.

That charge might increase by about $1,000, Kercheval said. County staff members are expected to propose to the commissioners at Tuesday's meeting that the fee be raised, he said.

Kercheval said the flat fee would be imposed throughout the county, including in municipalities, which would increase revenue. Currently, the county can collect the APFO fee only from within county limits, because the municipalities have not adopted such a fee.

The school board says it will need about $146 million over the next six years for construction projects, including $24.6 million in fiscal year 2006, $30.9 million in fiscal year 2007, $48.6 million in fiscal year 2008, $17.4 million in fiscal year 2009, $10 million in fiscal year 2010 and $14.8 million in fiscal year 2011.

The commissioners gave the school board $10 million this fiscal year for construction projects.

Kercheval said he didn't think the county would come up with the entire $24.6 million the school board wants for the next fiscal year, but that it would probably receive most of it because the APFO fees for schools is in place.

With the school system's growing enrollment, Kercheval said he didn't think the requests from the school board were too far off the mark.

Wivell said Tuesday he didn't think the county could come up with the construction money the school board has requested.

"I haven't seen any scenario where we would collect $30 million a year in either the excise tax or the APFO," Wivell said. "That's about three times what we're collecting now."

Wivell said those taxes would generate $10 million to $12 million in fiscal year 2006.

He questioned whether an adjusted excise tax is the way the commissioners should proceed, because it would take longer for the county to receive the revenue from the tax.

The APFO fee is collected at the time a development is proposed, whereas the excise tax is paid before a building permit is issued.

"If you wait until the permit stage with the excise tax, you're waiting several years later," Wivell said.

He said the county should talk about some of the school board's proposed construction projects, such as a new high school proposed to be built in Hagerstown. The school board lists that project at $36.8 million.

Wivell said the necessity of a new high school should be discussed, as should whether an existing high school could be expanded instead. He said the new high school "popped up on the radar screen" last month.

"Prior to that, they weren't planning any new high schools," he said.

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